While the title Zombi Child may conjure up gruesome imaginary visions in your mind’s eye, the film itself (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 28) is likely to surprise or disappoint unprepared viewers. Despite the ominous clouds and full moon that accompany its opening credits, this is a film determined to subvert expectations.
Yes, there are zombies, but they’re far from the pop culture varietals we’ve come to expect over the last fifty-plus years. Neither the slow walkers of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) nor the fast runners of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later… (2002), the reanimated corpses of Zombi Child instead hearken back to the Halperin Brothers’ 1932 creepshow White Zombie.
White Zombie starred Bela Lugosi as the delightfully named Murder Legendre, a mill operator whose living dead slave army operated his Haitian sugar cane facility. In Zombi Child’s 1962 preface, we are introduced to Clairvirus Narcisse, a forty-year-old man sent into a comatose state by the same sort of pseudo-pharmaceutical trickery used by Legendre to keep his staff in line.
Declared dead, buried, and then disinterred by grave robbers, the reanimated Narcisse is forced to work in the cane fields — but is ultimately only a minor character in Zombi Child. Instead, the focus of the film (written and directed by Frenchman Bertrand Bonello) is his granddaughter Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), orphaned by the great quake of 2010 and now living in France with Aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort).
Mélissa attends an extremely exclusive girls’ high school reserved for the daughters of notable citizens and holders of various prestigious national awards, including the Légion d’honneur. Her skin color – she is literally the only Black person in the school – marks her as a ‘weirdo,’ albeit one worthy of an invitation from classmate Fanny (Louise Labeque) to join a secret literary sorority.
When Fanny discovers that her new friend’s Aunt Katy is a mambo – a voodoo priestess – she decides she needs to inject a little witchcraft into her quest to capture the heart of handsome Pablo (Sayyid El Alami), a young man who seems to exist as much (or more?) in her dreams as he does in reality. Fanny, however, has bitten off more than she can chew (no pun intended; there is zero ingestion of human flesh in Zombi Child).
Though the supernatural does eventually intrude, Zombi Child is largely a deliberately paced examination of teenage tomfoolery, cultural appropriation, and elitist pedagogy. There are lengthy Godardian classroom sequences – I was reminded in particular of Sympathy for the Devil’s infamous junkyard scene – as lecturers hold forth on the meaning and creation of history and philosophy (“Liberalism obscures liberty, it ensures that it never quite comes to pass”, indeed).
Withal, Zombi Child is as much political treatise as screen chiller. Indeed, as soon as the clouds stop scudding across the opening credits, the pointed verse of Haiti’s greatest living poet, nonagenarian Rene Depestre, confronts the viewer: “Listen, white world, as our dead roar. Listen to my zombie voice honoring our dead.” There’s a lot more to Bonello’s film than cheap thrills and jump scares.